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U.S. Librarian of Congress Remembers Likhachev

The St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, Russia)
Posted on December 4, 2006

I first came to know Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev 45 years ago when I wrote the lead article for a scholarly roundtable on Old Russian culture sponsored by the Slavic Review. He and the great Russian theologian Georges Florovsky were my esteemed commentators. We met in person shortly thereafter in Leningrad and I saw that this deep scholar of Old Russian culture also exemplified the best in 20th-century Russian culture. Listening to him later as the oral examiner of a doctoral candidate, I understood that the erudition and graciousness with which he had commented on my article were not simply politeness to a young foreign scholar, but an innate quality expressed even more fully in his dealings with older Russian humanists working in the difficult confines of a reactionary Institute of History in Moscow.

In the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras I began working with Dmitry Sergeevich on bridge-building through the universal language of culture. During President Reaganís second term I came to play something of a role in the cultural dimension of relations with Russia while Dmitry Sergeevich was playing a far more direct and important role as a cultural adviser to both Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev.

In the summer of 1990, I listened to Likhachev read a marvelous paper showing that even his beloved Old Russia was a multi-ethnic society closely linked with Western and other outside influences, countering the prevailing chauvinistic view of Russian history. That evening I went with Dmitry Sergeevich to a stereotypically staged folklore presentation for the conference. Having eloquently described the real pluralism and multi-ethnicity of a supposedly monolithic Old Russia earlier that day, Dmitry Sergeevich decried to me the artificial Soviet kitsch that the waning Communist authorities were still superimposing on scholarly gatherings.

For the Bush-Gorbachev summit in Washington, I arranged with Dmitry Sergeevich to put on an exhibition of the book culture of the Old Believers at the Library of Congress. Dmitry Sergeevich came to Washington for the opening, and he guided Raisa Gorbachev through the mix of Old Believer books that had been brought by immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century, with new books produced in the remote regions of Russia in the same manuscript style as the older books.

Through these and many other encounters with Likhachev in this time of great change, I became aware of the extent to which this very old student of Old Russia was revered by the very young generation in the emerging post-Soviet Russia. He was, in a way, the last great representative of the high culture of old Petersburg, and at the same time a new version of that historic Russian phenomenon: a voice of conscience that speaks truth to power. He was, in effect, the Gorbachevsí family tutor in the glories of the culture that preceded the Soviet regime. It is a tribute to the Gorbachevs that they valued him, and it is a tribute to Likhachev that he never became simply another house ornament of Russian leaders.

In his characteristically gentle but firm way, he defended the wholeness, and at the same time the variety, of Russian culture, and he extolled its power to help transform a society deeply corrupted by totalitarianism. He never received the recognition abroad that he deserved, but he deeply believed that openness to the West was also important in creating a healthy future for Russia. One of the last of many visions he shared with me was his hope to create a university with different faculties in different countries as a true vehicle for international understanding.

Dmitry Sergeevich believed that post-Soviet Russia must both recover its own moral, artistic, and spiritual culture and, at the same time, discover the more open political and economic practices of the West. He did not see any contradiction between the two. When he received two years after Anna Akhmatova an honorary doctorate at Oxford, he had a long and moving visit with Isaiah Berlin, whose famous conversation with the persecuted poetess had so enraged the Stalinist establishment. Both participants confirmed to me how heartwarming the meeting was. It seemed to represent symbolically a new bridge between Russia and the West, Christian humanism and Jewish enlightenment.

Dmitry Sergeevich in his last years wrote letters to the Russian Patriarch calling for more open acknowledgment of the failings of the Orthodox Church hierarchy in the Soviet era and to President Yeltsin opposing the initial war in Chechnya. He lived to see the first Soviet Gulag in the Arctic archipelago of Solovki, where he had been imprisoned as a young man, turned back into a monastery and forward into a center for environmental study.

He was influential in the composition of one of the best and shortest speeches that Yeltsin ever gave: at the reburial in St. Petersburg of the remains of the last Tsar and his family. For all his love of tradition and his horror at the assassination of the royal family, Likhachev emphatically rejected any return to monarchy and enthusiastically backed democratic reform.

Seeing him in his modest apartment and dacha as the 20th century neared its end, I was deeply impressed by the thick piles of letters this old man was receiving from young people all over Russia. Like Likhachev himself, a new post-Soviet generation seemed to be simultaneously looking back to pre-Communist Russian culture and forward to post-war Western experience. He seemed to be a beacon and a magnet for many young Russians.

Likhachev played a special role as honorary co-chairman with me during the first year of the Open World Program, an exchange program housed in the U.S. legislative branch that enables emerging leaders from Russia and other Eurasian countries to experience American democracy and civil society in action. I like to believe that the Open World Program expresses some of the hopes of this noble man whose centennial we are commemorating in 2006. Open World has been in many ways a tribute to his vision as well as to that of the Congress which have carried on the program since his passing.


Dr. James H. Billington is the United States Librarian of Congress, founder of the Open World Program and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Open World Leadership Center. He visited St. Petersburg to attend an international congress celebrating the 100th anniversary (Nov. 29, 1906) of the birth of Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev.

[Reprinted with Permission]